Whatever you do, don’t celebrate the end of May with a Mayapple. You’d think that eating the fruit of something called a May-apple would be an appropriate – even a righteous -thing to do. But, if you live in the Great Lakes region, that would be a very bad idea. In fact, it just might be a fatal idea unless you are willing to put it off until later in the season. Sure, it would be like celebrating July 4th on Oct 4th but at least you’d survive until the next May to put it off again.
In the case of the Mayapple timing is everything. These familiar palm-like forest floor plants emerge under the open canopy of spring and flower in Late April/May. By the end of May, some of the plants are well on their way to producing their name-sake apples (see below). Only the two-leaved stalks produce apples (the single leavers do their best to look like miniature palm trees). Unfortunately at this stage of the game the fruit is poisonous. You need to wait until the thing is ripe and yellow before venturing a bite. They say they are edible but, even then, we are cautioned not to eat the seeds or the rind. The only question is determining when the fruits are ripe. I would also add that the question of personal sanity enters into this discussion as well.
Every part of the mayapple is poisonous. The rhizome, or underground stem, is especially toxic. One botanical account flatly states that Indians used it in order to commit suicide. Now there’s a thought. It was well known among non-suicidal Indians that burying the fruit allowed them to ripen properly before eating. Another source reminds us that the plant is useful for eliminating Chipmunks. I’m not sure why anyone would want to eliminate Chippers, but we can all store that one away in our book of useless knowledge. The Chipmunk death apple story is doubtful, however, because chippers and mayapples are found in the same habitat. I have never seen a pile of these dead rodents under any Mayapple.
Still another reference says that Mayapple compound was used to cure chickens with diarrhea! This last reference does not elaborate; however, my limited medical knowledge allows me to state that dead chickens do not get the runs.
In short, the only non-deadly part of the Mayapple is the fleshy part of the ripe fruit. If they don’t outright kill you, even the slightly un-ripe fruits will illicit a strong cathartic effect which might make you act like a dying chipmunk. So, why bother eating anything off such a toxic plant? Good question. I guess we eat them because we can. Although the fruit is insipid, it is edible -doggone it!
There is only a very narrow window of opportunity for eating Mayapples safely so resist the urge to open that window before it is ready. They don’t call this plant the “Devil’s Apple” for nothing.